The new 'This is Us' military arc is deeply personal
U.S. Marine Corps veteran James LaPorta is "nervous as hell" for season four of the critically-acclaimed NBC drama This is Us because for him, the story couldn't be more personal.
An infantry Marine with multiple Afghanistan deployments, LaPorta understands the impact of war. He also has some strong opinions about Hollywood's depiction of it, which he shared for Newsweek when This is Us explored the Vietnam War during season three.
"While Hollywood has improved upon its depiction of military veterans in recent years, the majority of characters produced are still one dimensional. Usually, the audience is delivered a stereotype of either the incredibly heroic service member or the tragically broken veteran who is unable to function. In reality, these are plot vehicles for lazy writing that garner cheap emotional responses and that can contribute to the civilian-military divide that is already occurring," he wrote.
Many in the military community agree and are quick to condemn military stories in film and television, but it was the Vietnam storyline that first caught LaPorta's attention. In his opinion, This is Us had figured out the right way to tell veterans' stories — though he couldn't have predicted that he would sign on to be part of the team that would tackle the war in Afghanistan.
A war that, in LaPorta's own words, is "being forgotten even as it's being fought."
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LaPorta, already a fan of This is Us, was impressed by the Vietnam storyline and its depiction of how our veterans of that war were treated when they came home. LaPorta reached out to This is Us creator Dan Fogleman, who told Newsweek that the story was "not just about combat in war—[it was] about what veterans, and in particular, veterans of that generation, kept from their families, from significant others. Things they may have even kept from themselves at certain times."
Fogleman invited LaPorta to visit the set and talk with the staff writers, which lead to LaPorta's involvement on the show. He was hired as a military advisor for season four, which introduces the character of Cassidy Sharp (played by Jennifer Morrison), a soldier who struggles to return home from Afghanistan.
The story comes with pressure to "get it right." LaPorta didn't want to depict another military caricature, but the balance between telling an entertaining story and showing what it's truly like for veterans is a tricky one. For LaPorta, it's not only personal in that he shares his own experiences, but he also wove the stories of people he served with into this season.
LaPorta not only provided guidance about uniforms and weapons, but he was intent on getting every detail right, down to the proper tourniquets for the military units or the red dye in the beards of Afghan locals. He wanted it to be visually authentic at a minimum.
But he took his role as military advisor further by truly bridging the divide between the military and civilians in the cast and crew. One of the more meaningful ways he did this was by making and gifting memorial bracelets to honor the memories of fallen service members.
Among those who received bracelets were Fogleman and Morrison, the writing team, Executive Producer and Director Ken Olin, and Milo Ventimiglia, who plays a Vietnam War veteran in the show (and whose father was an actual Vietnam War veteran).
When I asked what he was most excited about with this season's story, LaPorta mentioned that female veterans in particular are underrepresented on-screen. "We've seen my story before, in terms of the male infantryman. We've seen it. But we haven't really seen what women go through," he insisted.
Then, about two weeks prior to his first meeting for season four, Navy cryptologist Shannon Kent had just been killed in an ISIS suicide attack.
While Cassidy Sharp isn't based on Kent or any one veteran in particular, she is a character who is serving in a combat zone, which many Americans are surprised to discover is the reality of post-9/11 wars. Female service members are risking their lives every day and their experience is unique.
"As we're making this storyline, there are actually people fighting these wars," LaPorta shared. "It's something I'll never forget, and I wanted to give the memorial bracelets so the cast and crew can remember that fact, too. It was a way to thank them for telling this story."
Watch This is Us Tuesday nights on NBC at 9/8c.
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